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Michael Karikis captures the other-wordly sound of the haenyo

Mikhail Karikis’s Sea Women project, installed in the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station for six weeks up to 7 July, comprised two separate but connected works.

The less remarkable part was some video footage of the haenyo at work. In subject matter this was nothing that has not been seen before in other documentary films – for example Barbara Hammer’s work – but the video has a special intimacy to it as it followed the elderly women in their communal daily lives, and it catches the beauty of the Jeju coastline well. Unusually, the footage is silent. In the Q&A on 28 June 2012 the artist suggested, with some justification, that by depriving the footage of sound he forces the audience to focus more on what is presented visually.

The more unusual part was a sound installation comprising recordings of the haenyo singing their diving songs, of their peculiar breathing sounds (known as sumbisori, 숨비소리), and of the waves crashing against the rocks. Those such as myself who had never heard that extraordinary breathing noise before found it intriguing and other-wordly. And because the installation was in a darkened room, with sound and no video, our ears were all the more attuned to what we were listening to, without getting distracted by anything visual. The speakers were placed all around the room, and being surrounded by the strange sounds was an ethereal experience.

The below trailer is a combination of the video and audio projects:

The Q&A session with the artist on 28 June was unfortunate in being facilitated by a gent who mumbled inarticulately and a woman who was obsessed with sex. In her very first contribution to the discussion she managed to talk about the female orgasm and “our obsession with the cumshot.” How she got to there from wondering how the haenyo make their strange breathing noises was a bit tenuous. Karikis himself thankfully spoke more sense, but was let down by his discussants. Some of the evening rather lacked substance, with the discussants expressing endless fascination that the two parts of the work were in different rooms without any synchronisation between the two halves. The artist pointed out in a rather down to earth manner that when there was a break in the video a visitor could simply wander into the next room and listen to the audio instead. The discussion became more interesting when talking about all the ethnographic and gender issues arising with a young, European male working on a project documenting elderly, Asian women engaged in a practice which is imbued with traditional custom.

Inside the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station
Inside the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station

The venue, the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, looks like a nice place for an office dinner, if you don’t mind a long walk from Shadwell DLR station. Or combine a visit with a pint or two at the Prospect of Whitby, a very pleasant pub on the river.

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